2021 Spring Commencement

"If there is anything you have learned here at Carolina, I hope it’s that there is still so much that you don’t yet know. Keep learning and growing. Keep asking questions, especially of the people who have different experiences, who are unique, who see the world differently than you do."

Opening Remarks

It’s amazing to be here standing before you. It’s been a tough year, and it could have been easy to just forego this day. But I’m so glad we didn’t.

Why is it important to move a small tassel six inches from right to left across your face? Why does this matter?

I hope you feel in your bones that this is important. But even if you don’t right now, I bet you’ll look back and know instinctively that this ceremony, and taking this moment to reflect wherever you are, is important.

Why? First, your story matters. Each one of you is a different person today than the person who came to Carolina years ago.

That journey is a story: of the friends you’ve made, the faculty you’ve learned from, the classroom and research group conversations that have formed your thinking.

The stories of late nights at the library, cheering at games, rushing Franklin St, breakfast at Suttons, picnics on the Quad.

And it’s not just about your story. Yes, your individual story matters. But you are part of a larger story.

The story of your family, and the love and support that has shaped who you are at this moment. It is also the story of our community here at Carolina.

You have built this community in your time here.

The second reason this ceremony is important is because history matters. You are joining a long line of Tar Heel alumni who have gathered in this place.

Tar Heels like you have lived through pandemics, political unrest and economic uncertainty. Tar Heels like the Class of 1971, who this year mark the 50th anniversary of their graduation and who wish they could be on the field with you today.

This ceremony, and this moment, reminds us of our history as the nation’s first public university. It reminds us that we are here because for generations, the people of North Carolina have sacrificed and invested in your futures.

This university’s purpose – its very existence – is to serve this state. You are here to fully experience and appreciate this long history of service that extends all the way back to 1789.

And third, we know rituals matter. Rituals ground us in the familiar and remind us of our place in the world.

At a Jewish wedding, the chuppah signifies the new home a couple is building together. Christian baptism signifies being reborn into a new life. Last week, Muslims around the world celebrated the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting and reflection that grounds them in their faith and compassion for others.

Many rituals symbolize the endurance of trials and becoming something new.

Taking a sip at the Old Well signifies the hope of a new semester. Lighting the Bell Tower celebrates special moments in our community’s life together.

That is what today is about. You have defeated the obstacles, overcome the odds, and made it. John F. Kennedy once said, “Do not pray for easy lives, pray to be stronger.” You have become stronger.

The ways you’ve had to endure and fight through this pandemic will pay dividends someday. You have adapted, and the lessons of this year are important and worth celebrating.

You will face other challenges in your life….who knows, maybe next year, 5 years or 25 years from now. I hope that you will look back on 2020 and think about how you’ve persevered, how you’ve helped others amid the struggles and obstacles.

This is what great universities do. We are the university of the people and we teach one another, and our society, how to adapt and solve the grand challenges of our time. As graduates, you will do the same in the years to come.

And so today, let’s celebrate you, Carolina’s Class of 2021. I’ve loved being your chancellor, this year and every year.

It’s been so fun to look out my office window at the Old Well and see so many of you taking pictures in your Carolina blue caps and gowns over the past few weeks.

Please join me in a round of applause for all of our graduates.

Introduction of keynote speakers, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett

Your Commencement speakers today are two incredible leaders in the fight against COVID-19.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is the nation’s top infectious disease doctor and has served as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director since 1984.

In this role, he oversees research focused on preventing, diagnosing and treating established and emerging infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDs, respiratory infections, malaria and Ebola.

He has received numerous prestigious awards for his scientific and global health accomplishments, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He’s been one of the most popular and reassuring faces on national television during the pandemic.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, one of our own, has been at the forefront of vaccine development as a leading scientist at the National Institutes of Health.

She earned her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the UNC School of Medicine in 2014.

Her interest in rapid vaccine development led her to a postdoc fellowship at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, where she studied coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS.

That work laid the foundation for the speed with which her team developed a COVID-19 vaccine.

She is now a research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronaviruses Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She will join the faculty at Harvard this fall in the immunology & infectious diseases department.

It is our honor to have these two amazing scientists with us today.

Charge to the Graduates

Congratulations Graduates! You now join the over 340,000 living alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One of those alumni, Roy Williams, is arguably one of the best to ever coach the game of basketball.

Sitting next to him at his final press conference at the Smith Center, I remember the words he said looking out at members of the teams he’s coached over the years.

He said, “I’ve been so lucky because of those players. And nothing is better than seeing the look on your guys’ faces when you accomplish something that’s really hard.”

You, the Class of 2021, have accomplished something really hard. And, along with your faculty, your families and your friends, we are lucky to have been on this journey with you.

We celebrate what you’ve accomplished and we’re excited for your future.

Speaking of great coaches….I want to leave you with one piece of advice, and it comes from Jason Sudeikis. If you’ve seen the Apple TV series Ted Lasso, you’ll remember an important dart game.

As Ted’s playing, he talks about how people have underestimated him his entire life, and he never understood why. Until he heard a quote from Walt Whitman: “Be curious, not judgmental.”

And he realized that the people who used to belittle him weren’t curious. They judged everyone, and they had no idea who he actually was.

Because if they were curious, they would have asked questions. Questions like “have you played a lot of darts, Ted?” The answer was yes, Ted used to play darts every Sunday afternoon with his dad.

And when the stakes were highest, Ted hits two triple twenties and a bullseye to win.

As we conclude today’s ceremony, that is my message to you: Be curious, not judgmental.

In my own research on concussions, every time we answer one question, new questions emerge.

So keep asking the questions and don’t assume you know all the answers. Don’t think you know who someone is just by looking at them.

If there is anything you have learned here at Carolina, I hope it’s that there is still so much that you don’t yet know. Keep learning and growing.

Keep asking questions, especially of the people who have different experiences, who are unique, who see the world differently than you do.

And I hope that like Ted Lasso, you remember that when others underestimate you, it’s because they themselves aren’t curious.

They don’t know your story. And they haven’t asked the right questions.

Remember that, and then go win that dart game.

Congratulations Tar Heels!